A sarong is a 4- to 5-foot length of fabric, traditionally worn as a loose-fitting men’s kilt or women’s skirt in the Malay Archipelago. The pareo is similar in appearance and wear, but developed independently in Tahiti.
The word sarong comes from the Malay “sarung,” meaning sheath or covering. The Indonesian sarong stems from the tradition of batik fabric, made with a labor-intensive dying method.
The pareo is Tahitian, and developed when islanders adapted their traditional colors and designs to Western fabric introduced by European explorers in the 1700s, according to Black Pearl Designs, a company dedicated to Polynesian art and fashion.
Modern-day wrap-arounds are available in many different fabrics and patterns, often a tropical floral print. The fabric may be sheer, for wearing over a bathing suit, or heavy and opaque for a more formal look.
How to Wear
The wrap can be worn as a skirt, or wrapped just under the shoulders or over one shoulder to give it the look of a full-length dress.
In areas such as Hawaii and the Caribbean, the difference between the sarong and pareo is blurred and the names may be used interchangeably. Sarong-style garments include the pakome of Thailand, the kain of Indonesia, and the Samoan lava lava.
References and ResourcesDictionary.com: Sarong
Black Pearl Designs: Is It a Sarong or a Pareo?
Black Pearl Designs: The History of the Pareo